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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

2019-Malcolm-Greenaway-Voices-from-Village

Photos: Malcolm Greenaway

April is National Poetry Month. I know quite a few poets, and I truly value the way they capture feelings obliquely and more deeply than common speech. In fact, at my sister’s memorial service in January, I read my friend Ronnie Hess‘s poem called “What We Scarcely Know,” from her collection Ribbon of Sand about a childhood on Fire Island. The theme of sand repeatedly washing away and returning in a new form really spoke to me. What poems speak to you?

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Photo: Wisconsin poet Ronnie Hess

Rhode Island poet Nancy Greenaway has been bringing a love of poetry to her community and to students on Block Island for decades. Recently she told me, “For National Poetry Month, I usually organize a reading of favorite poems by community members who are not poets: a ferry captain, a police chief, a teacher, a real estate broker, a minister, a doctor, a guitar-playing student, a gift shop owner, a first warden [something like a mayor], a manager of the power company, for example.

“We had scheduled the Voices from the Village reading for April 24, but cancelled because of COVID 19. Instead, we are asking community members to email favorite poems to their friends during the month of April. I’ve received two so far:
Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things‘ and Kitty O’Meara’s ‘And the people stayed home.’ ”

Nancy’s email inspired me to search online for articles about past Voices from the Village events. This is from the Block Island Times, May 2018: “The annual community poetry reading known as Voices from the Village featured a wide range of voices reading the works of many different poets:

“Here is the poem by [former first warden] Edie Blane’s sister, Eileen Lee, titled ‘Block Island Spring,’ from Jan. 31, 1962.

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Photo: Malcolm Greenaway

“Spring doesn’t come to our bleak island home

“With whispering air and fragrant smell of earth.

“Ours is a different world —

“Grey, cold and harsh,

“And April days are angry with us still.

“The equinox comes in with windy roar;

“Pale dune grass dips and rises in its path.

“Seas crash

“White crested and dark shining green.

“The sun is bright but gives no pleasant warmth.

“And yet we have a portent, old as time,

“Though cold winds rule us yet, with icy breath;

“A day of quiet comes —

“The Sound grows still, a pale and milky blue

“The smallest waves lap gently on the shore.

“In the great echoing stillness on the sea

“The sweet slow tolling of the buoy rolls in.

“At last, this is the long awaited time,

“First sign of island spring.”

See all the Malcolm Greenaway photos of the 2018 readers here. And for inspiration from Nature, check the photographer’s website, here.

I’m wondering if a group poetry reading could be done virtually, the way these singers handled the old-time spiritual “Down to the River.” Looks complicated.

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Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images
Tate Britain’s curator said the projection of William Blake’s Ancient of Days was in keeping with Blake’s ‘lifelong dream to be an artist with real public impact.’

As happens all too often, I miss the deadline for when you could go see something I’ve written about. If you were in London two months ago, I apologize. I would have loved to see this art myself, having long been a fan of William Blake.

Mark Brown, writing at the Guardian in November, explains what we all missed.

“William Blake always dreamed of making vast works for churches and palaces but to his bitter disappointment he never achieved it. More than two centuries after his death Tate has announced it is going some way to making up for that by projecting his final work on to the giant dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

“For four evenings [in November], his illustration Ancient of Days will dramatically light up the skyline of London.

“Martin Myrone, the senior curator of pre-1800 art at Tate Britain, said Blake always had grand ambitions as an artist, proposing huge frescoes that were never realised. … ‘What he said he wanted to do was produce altarpieces and large-scale pictorial schemes in churches and palaces.’ …

“Blake is regarded as a visionary, radical artist who was ahead of his time and unappreciated for most of his life.

“ ‘He had a frustrating career and had moments when he was really down and depressed,’ said Myrone. ‘He felt alienated from the art establishment and he never really won the audience that he wished to have. He did see himself as an artist who should be read and seen by not just a few connoisseurs but by lots and lots of people.’

“The project, which marks his birthday, stems from Tate Britain’s current exhibition of Blake, the biggest for a generation. … The St Paul’s dome takes it to another level and is an appropriate venue because it is home to a memorial to Blake. His body was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields burial ground near Old Street in London.” More at the Guardian.

A Wikipedia post says in part, “The Ancient of Days is a design by William Blake, originally published as the frontispiece to the 1794 work Europe a Prophecy. It draws its name from one of God’s titles in the Book of Daniel and shows Urizen [who in the mythology of William Blake is the embodiment of conventional reason and law] crouching in a circular design with a cloud-like background. His outstretched hand holds a compass over the darker void below. Related imagery appears in Blake’s Newton, completed the next year. As noted in Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, the design of The Ancient of Days was ‘a singular favourite with Blake and as one it was always a happiness to him to copy.’ ”

Anyone else a Blake fan?

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Photo: Akhil DT
“Censorship is anti-creation” … A quote from a lecture by Salman Rushdie, as seen on a StickLit poster on a Bangalore cement pillar. StickLit brings literature to the people using stickers.

In the New York metro and the T in Boston, I’ve enjoyed the poetry posters that give riders something more meaningful to read and ponder than ads. Now I’m learning about a new poetry-for-the-people effort in India. It uses poetry stickers in both English and a local language in site-specific venues.

Priyanka Sacheti reports at the Guardian, “There are thousands of street food carts in New Delhi. But only one has the opening lines of Riyazat Ullah Khan’s poem ‘Wazoodiyat’ on the side:

Where can the pauper keep his pain of existence?
He has no container but a heart.

“The sticker bearing the couplet is from a campaign called StickLit, which seeks to make literature more accessible by placing quotes in public spaces.

“Nidhin Kundathil and Manoj Pandey had the idea for the project while contemplating the advertisements, posters and billboards that are consumed almost subliminally on Indian streets.

“ ‘We thought of turning this [visual] experience on its head to create a completely new and refreshing alternative for passersby – [one] which was not just selling something, for a change,’ says Pandey, 32, a freelance writer in Darjeeling.

“The idea subsequently evolved: they would make what they call the world’s largest library – ‘the largest repository of good literature in public spaces: a library that’s free for all.’ So they hit the streets, putting up free-format stickers, posters and wall murals. …

“After starting in Bengaluru and Delhi in 2017, the project has spread all over India, with volunteers in various cities taking it up. The stickers are available from the StickLit website and the founders encourage people to download them and use them freely. …

“The founders encourage placement based on context: poems in railway stations, for example, when people have longer to contemplate them; shorter quotes and excerpts for busy streets. They also use place-specific languages – Hindi in Delhi, or Kannada in Bengaluru – alongside English. There are plans to share prison poetry in prisons as well.

“Kundathil, 33, a Bengaluru-based graphic artist, handles the design. He says he deliberately chooses bold, brightly-coloured fonts and minimal design elements in order not just to attract attention but to ensure that attention remains focused on the text.

“The list of authors chosen is inclusive and diverse, from Rushdie and former government minister Shashi Tharoor to newer voices such as Nishita Gill and Nikhil Mhaisne. They have also shared works of Kannada literary greats across Bengaluru. ‘A lot of our material consists of work by aspiring writers as well,’ Pandey says, adding that the project is open to submissions.

“ ‘We like to believe that people, especially the young, are drawn towards StickLit as they are not cynical,’ Pandey says. ‘They still believe that a pen can change the world. And we’d like to foster that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Hayley Madden/Spread the Word
Theresa Lola is the new young people’s laureate for London. Her writing has been described as “breathtakingly beautiful.”

Poetry will survive at least one more generation, judging from the numbers of young people who are enjoying it and even buying poetry books.

Sanjana Varghese writes at the Guardian, “Poet Theresa Lola, named the new young people’s laureate for London, says she hopes to use the role to help the capital’s demonised youth to find confidence in their voice.

“The 24-year-old British-Nigerian from Bromley, south London, studied accounting and finance at university before turning to poetry. She is the third young people’s laureate, after Caleb Femi and Momtaza Mehri. The joint winner of the 2018 Brunel international African poetry prize, her debut collection, In Search of Equilibrium, was published in February, and was described as breathtaking by author Bernardine Evaristo. …

“ ‘It’s easy for us to demonise young people and social media,’ [Lola] said. ‘Poetry was instrumental for me, to find my voice and to find my confidence, and hopefully it can do that for other young people too.’

“Sales of poetry books have increased over the last three years, hitting an all-time high of [$15 million in the UK] in 2018. Two-thirds of poetry buyers are now under 34, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year. …

“ ‘A lot of young people are seeing that yes, [poetry] is reflective of their experiences and upbringing. They’re getting to understand that [it] exists anywhere. I’m hoping to meet so many different young people and help them see the poetry in their lives,’ Lola said.

“ ‘London is so important to me, especially for my craft – it’s such an eclectic city. It inspires me to be a form of myself in every poem.’ …

“The young people’s laureate title was established by writer development agency Spread the Word in 2016. Lola … will work on four residencies around London and a PoetryLab, which aims to nurture talented young poets in the capital.

“Spread the Word director Ruth Harrison said: ‘At a time of political uncertainty, when young people’s lives, concerns and aspirations are often ignored and dismissed, it is vital that their voices are heard by those in power.’ ” More.

My grandchildren are big on finding words that rhyme. Not that a poem has to rhyme, but sometimes that’s where nascent poets get hooked. I have made up some silly poems with the kids while driving home from school, and I expect they’ll always get a kick out of making words go together in surprising ways.

 

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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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Photo: New York Times
Fisher poet Dave Densmore, on his boat, wrote his first poem as a joke in the 1970s. Now he studies writing.

Jobs like commercial fishing can provide a lot of of time to think, and it’s amazing how thinking often leads to poetry. That is also true of experiences that are so hard to capture they must be addressed obliquely.

Poetic storytelling is alive and well in the fishing community, it seems. Consider this transcript of a National Public Radio (NPR) report, in which Melanie Sevcenko describes an annual fisher poet event.

“MELANIE SEVCENKO: Moe Bowstern named herself after the front and back end of a ship. She calls herself a fishing woman. And for her, writing poetry comes with the job.

“MOE BOWSTERN: Well, I mean, have you ever been fishing? …  It’s unbelievably boring. And so you just have to think of something else to do.

“SEVCENKO: Now retired from commercial fishing, Bowstern is one of dozens of fisher poets who have been meeting for their annual gathering in a Astoria, Ore. During the last weekend of February, the far-flung fisher people interpret the commercial fishing industry in prose, poetry and song. …

“Bowstern started fishing in Kodiak, Alaska, in the mid-’80s when women on commercial boats were scarce. Her zine shares a name with a popular brand of deck boots, XTRATUF. This piece is called ‘Things That Will Be Difficult.’

“BOWSTERN: ‘It will be hard, if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now when you are only trying to help. It will be hard if you are a woman to go’ …

“SEVCENKO: The poetry onstage at FisherPoets touches on what Bowstern calls an incredibly difficult life.

“BOWSTERN: Not just because of the rigors of the actual physical experience of the life, but it’s just, how can you be a fisherman at a time of climate change? And, like, where are you going to position yourself with resource extraction?

“SEVCENKO: That’s something John Copp has written about. For 20 years, he ran operations in Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. Multinational corporations want to mine gold and copper from the area nearby and have been angling to do so for years. His poem ‘Tsunami’ is inspired by his opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine. … Many commercial fishermen have been against the Pebble Mine because of the damage it could do to the biggest salmon run on the planet. Copp is retired and lives in Oregon now. But he’s still inspired to write by the natural beauty of Alaska. …

“This weekend, once again, the fisher poets will do what they’ve done for more than two decades — gather on piers, in cafes and in theaters to perform their poetry for grateful audiences in this seaside town. Bowstern feels lucky that people who’ve never even been fishing want to hear their stories.

“BOWSTERN: We’re participating in two traditions that have been going on. Like, storytelling is probably only a little bit older than fishing, you know? So we get to tell stories in our special, weird language. And people just can’t get enough of it.”

The NPR transcript is here, and there’s another good article at the New York Times, here. If you know people who fish and also write poetry, have them check out the Fisher Poets website, here.

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Photo: Lee Allen Photography
Dispensing poetry on prescription: Shropshire’s Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma.

Sometimes poetry can play a role in emotional healing. I think that’s because ordinary sentences often miss the mark but poetry is fluid enough to go where it’s needed. In the UK, a Shropshire poet is putting her faith in this art and opening a “poetry pharmacy.” She notes that a recent report shows “poetry sales were up by more than 12% in 2018, driven largely by younger buyers.”

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “Following in the hallowed footsteps of Milton, who wrote in 1671 that ‘apt words have power to swage / The tumours of a troubled mind / And are as balm to festered wounds,’ the poet Deborah Alma is preparing to open the UK’s first poetry pharmacy. Here, instead of sleeping pills and multivitamins, customers will be offered prescriptions of Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Bishop.

“Alma, who as the ‘Emergency Poet’ has prescribed poems as cures from the back of a 1970s ambulance for the last six years, is now setting up a permanent outlet in a shop at Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire. An old Edwardian ironmonger’s, it still has the original fixtures and fittings, and, together with her partner, the TS Eliot prize-shortlisted poet James Sheard, Alma is preparing to turn it into a haven ‘to help ease a variety of maladies with the soothing therapy of Poetry.’

“Dressed in a white coat and stethoscope, Alma says she was invited to appear as the Emergency Poet at ‘schools, hospitals and festivals all over the place, but I’m a middle-aged woman and I’m getting a bit old for driving around.’ …

“The [pharmacy’s] mortgage was approved [in January], and Alma is buzzing with plans for how the shop will be divided like a pharmacy ‘into areas for particular ailments.’ … The sections will be set up along the lines of a poetry anthology she edited in 2016, The Everyday Poet, which was split into poems ‘addressing areas of emotional need’ such as love, ageing, grief and hope. …

“ ‘I think probably more than any other art it speaks directly as though from one person to another,’ says Alma, who published her own first collection, Dirty Laundry, last year. ‘It’s intimate and it’s empathetic. It can be a prayer or a curse, or something just to hang on to.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I’m glad to know something more about Shropshire poets beyond “The Shropshire Lad,” which I know only by reputation.

Hat tip: Wisconsin poet Ronnie Hess on Facebook.

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Photo: Poetry Out Loud
Janae Claxton of South Carolina is the 2018 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. A new survey suggests interest in poetry is growing in the United States.

I’ve been thinking about poetry lately. The team of family and friends keeping my sister company before her surgery was made up of people who enjoy poetry — reading, listening, memorizing, or reciting poetry. My sister herself knows a lot of poems by heart, and we all had fun quoting what we knew and looking up favorites on the web. Some of the poems were so moving, we had to stop and recover ourselves.

Poetry is the right thing in difficult times. And it seems my sister’s hospital team is not alone in feeling a need for it. A new survey shows that poetry reading is up nationwide.

Sunil Iyengar, National Endowment for the Arts director of research and analysis, writes at the NEA Art Works Blog, “Poetry reading in the United States has increased since five years previously. Nearly 12 percent (11.7 percent) of adults read poetry in the last year, according to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). That’s 28 million adults. As a share of the total U.S. adult population, this poetry readership is the highest on record over a 15-year period of conducting the SPPA, a research partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. …

“Growth in poetry reading is seen across most demographic sub-groups (e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education level), but here are highlights:

• Young adults have increased their lead, among all age groups, as poetry readers. Among 18-24-year-olds, the poetry-reading rate more than doubled, to 17.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.2 percent in 2012. Among all age groups, 25-34-year-olds had the next highest rate of poetry-reading: 12.3 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 2012.

• Women also showed notable gains (14.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.0 percent in 2012). As in prior years, women accounted for more than 60 percent of all poetry-readers. Men’s poetry-reading rate grew from 5.2 percent in 2012 to 8.7 percent in 2017.

• Among racial/ethnic subgroups, African Americans (15.3 percent in 2017 up from 6.9 percent in 2012), Asian Americans (12.6 percent, up from 4.8 percent), and other non-white, non-Hispanic groups (13.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent) now read poetry at the highest rates. Furthermore, poetry-reading increased among Hispanics (9.7 percent, up from 4.9 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (11.4 percent, up from 7.2 percent).

• Adults with only some college education showed sharp increases in their poetry-reading rates.  Of those who attended but did not graduate from college, 13.0 percent read poetry in 2017, up from 6.6 percent in 2012. College graduates (15.2 percent, up from 8.7 percent) and adults with graduate or professional degrees (19.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent) also saw sizeable increases.

• Urban and rural residents read poetry at a comparable rate (11.8 percent of urban/metro and 11.2 percent of rural/non-metro residents). …

“More than 300,000 students from more than 2,300 high schools around the country participate in [the Poetry Out Loud] recitation competition. Last April, champions from 53 states and territories competed in the National Finals here in D.C. This year’s winner was high school senior Janae Claxton from the First Baptist School of Charleston, South Carolina. …

“Each year, the NEA Big Read supports community reading programs in approximately 75 communities nationwide, and includes poetry books such as [Muscogee (Creek) member] Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human and Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke in the available titles.”

Iyengar speculates that use of social media to promote poetry may explain part of the expanded interest. As for me, I think the obliqueness and beauty of good poetry help people to get their heads around big, impossible things.

More.

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Thank you for all the lovely things you have written. My sister has a long road ahead, but she is a strong person and is facing it well. Ms. Mighty Mouse.

I actually saw a Ms. Mighty Mouse sculpture on my walk and took a picture. Unlike her, my sister has both her arms and all her faculties.

I liked the Alice Walker poetry mural I saw, too, and will repeat the poem here as my sister loves poetry. In fact, the day before her surgery, the four of us who were gathered in her room had the best time quoting poetry at each other. It was a lot of fun.

The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom

Rebellious. Living.
Against the Elemental Crush.
A Song of Color
Blooming
For Deserving Eyes.
Blooming Gloriously
For its Self.

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Photo: Brain Pickings
Kelli Anderson works on paper flowers for an animation illustrating Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism.”

If you haven’t discovered Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings yet, I hope that you will. Not only do I got the very best ideas there for books to buy the grandchildren, I learn more than I can say about literature and science — and the intersection of the two.

In one recent post, Popova talks about asking a cut-paper artist to create a short animation to illustrate a Jane Hirshfield poem. I loved reading about the thought process behind this project.

“One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk,” writes Popova, “I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: ‘Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.’

“Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verseand was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

“A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem ‘Optimism’ for the show. … It instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of bringing the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film. …

“I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Book Is a Planetarium. …

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield
[from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions]

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth. …

“Find more highlights from The Universe in Versehere.”

Read the rest of Popova’s post at Brain Pickings, here, where you can also enjoy the delightful animation made from cut paper. (I’m thinking 18th C botanical paper artist Mary Delany would have loved the ability to create an animation.)

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Photo: Ben Fractenberg
Jason Reynolds is a 
New York Times bestselling author, a National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors.

Some children and teens who think they don’t like literature can really open up to it through poetry that is less intimidating. That’s the view of Jason Reynolds, author of the young adult novel Long Way Down, among others. Recently, he talked to PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff about using poetry to capture the attention of reluctant readers.

“Woodruff: While Hollywood has figured out how to get boys to watch movies, the formula is trickier for getting boys to read, especially among those who have already expressed frustration and boredom with books.

“Reynolds: If you were to tell me that you were afraid of dogs, I wouldn’t then return to you with a pack of pit bulls. … What I might do is casually walk with you by one of those doggy day cares. The ones with the pups small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Yippy little fur balls that get so excited, their tails wag the entire back halves of their bodies. The dogs that grin and want nothing more than to lap your skin with fervent affection. …

“So then, why, when it comes to young people who don’t like reading, who feel intimidated by literature, do we answer that cry with an onslaught of the very thing they fear? Why do we show up with a pack of pit bulls in the form of pages, and expect them to stop running away?

“Perhaps they haven’t found the right style of book because, sometimes it isn’t about subject matter, or voice, or point of view. …

“For some kids, those words [on the page] — the amount of words — is equivalent to a snarling dog. So, why not start with the less threatening, palm-sized pup in the window? In this case, poetry.

“Poetry has the ability to create entire moments with just a few choice words. The spacing and line breaks create rhythm, a helpful musicality, a natural flow. The separate stanzas aid in perpetuating a kind of incremental reading, one small chunk at a time.

“And the white space, for an intimidated reader, adds breathability to a seemingly suffocating task. …

“With the incredible selection of poetry and novels and verse from past to present, this is an opportune time to use them to chip away at bibliophobia. Less words on the page, more white space, without necessarily sacrificing the narrative elements.

“And once young people experience turning those pages, once the rush of comprehension and completion laps at their psyches for the first time, perhaps they will know they need not fear a thing created to love them, and for them to love.”

Read a 50-word poetic narrative that Reynolds wrote to draw in kids, here. See also this post on “poetry slams,” another way to get young people engaged in language arts.

My thanks to poet Ronnie Hess for posting the Reynolds piece on Facebook.

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Photo: eGuide Travel
The highlands of Papua, New Guinea, are among the isolated places that linguists search for speakers of dying languages.

I’ve blogged before about linguists and others who are trying to preserve languages spoken by only a few people. The belief is that there is intrinsic value in such endangered languages and that they are key to understanding cultures. Recently I saw that one group is focusing on a particular manifestation of rare languages — their poems.

Fiona Macdonald writes at the BBC about the Endangered Poetry Project.

” ‘They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people,’ ” she reports, quoting Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. …

” They are ‘PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels.’ …

“ ‘They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card. … ‘The only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.’ …

“The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle [language] loss at another level. ‘Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,’ says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe. ‘And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort.’ …

“The project has issued a call-out to members of the public, asking for poems written in an endangered or vulnerable language. ‘In the first week, we’ve had over a dozen submissions in about 10 languages,’ says McCabe. ‘That includes poems in Breton, and poems in a dialect of Breton called Vannes. We’ve had a poem in Alsatian, and the Sardinian dialect Logudorese. We’re interested in these variations in language in different places as well, which can often be markedly different from the established language. …

” ‘You get a focus on place – in poems we’ve received from Sardinia, for example, there’s a focus on the mountain range there,’ says McCabe. ‘It shows you where people felt drawn to for inspiration in the landscape. Also, the style of a lot of Gaelic poems is very lyrical, and often uses repetition, a lot like a song. In that poetic tradition, you see how the division between poetry and music is quite slight – they often cross over between one and the other. The poetry tells us a lot about what kind of artistic experience people like, as well as what’s important in their geography.’ ”

Lots more here. Very interesting stuff.

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Image: Tom McShane
The author of those lines is an unusual 10th century figure — Shmuel HaNagid, prime minister of the kingdom of Granada in Spain, head of both Granada’s Muslim army
and Andalusia’s Jewish community.

The force of history works in mysterious ways. Here is a story about how an ancient Arabic poetic tradition was preserved because Jewish poets valued it.

Benjamin Ramm reports at the BBC, “On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. …

“[Years before], as much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis, the brightest beacon of civilisation. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphate of Al-Andalus stretched from Lisbon to Zaragoza, and centred on the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville. From the 8th Century, the caliphate oversaw a period of extraordinary cross-cultural creativity known as La Convivencia (the Coexistence). …

“Among the Muslim poets of Al-Andalus, there was a concerted attempt to rediscover and reinvent the literary forms of Arabic, sophisticated and lyrical, rooted in the concept of fasaaha (clarity, elegance). The fire in Granada destroyed part of this heritage, but it survives in an unexpected form – in an imaginative body of Hebrew poetry, which illustrates the extent of cross-cultural exchange.

“Peter Cole, the foremost translator of Hebrew poetry from Al-Andalus, argues in his book The Dream of the Poem that a major legacy of the Moorish writers was to inspire Jewish poets to emulate their work. … The innovations were initiated in the 10th Century by Dunash Ben Labrat. …

“Controversially, Ben Labrat adopted Arabic poetic metre, and was accused of ‘destroying the holy tongue’ and ‘bringing calamity upon his people’. But the Hebrew renaissance that followed produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, and the period became known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Iberian Jewish culture. …

“At a time of intercommunal tension, it is tempting to idealise this Muslim-Jewish period of mutual flourishing. There are critics who argue against the notion of La Convivencia – some have called it a ‘myth.’ … Documentation about communal relations during this period is scant, [and] the extent of ‘coexistence’ continues to be a subject of passionate disputation. …

“The kingdom of Granada was the last territory to fall to the Christian Reconquest in 1492, after which Jews were forcibly converted or expelled. Saadia Ibn Danaan, a rabbi who wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew, transmitted the tradition to North Africa.” Read more.

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mariannemooresplash-1Ellen’s friend and colleague Heather Cass White has come out with a new edition of poetry by Marianne Moore, the quirky inventor of “turtle top” for a car design, among other, more significant literary adventures.

I once had the pleasure of hearing Marianne Moore read at Bryn Mawr College. She looked so much like my grandmother. My parents encouraged me to read her books, providing O, To Be a Dragon! for example. Random lines stuck with me, like this statement on poetry: “I, too, dislike it.”

On the website “FSGWork in Progress,” White writes thoughtfully about the challenges presented by her subject.

“In trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, ‘But what is a poem?’ It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.

“I do know why I am stuck on it, however. Editing Moore’s work will deprive anyone of their certainty about what a poem actually is. All poetry editing raises a fundamental issue: Is a poem a specific ordering of words on a page? And if so, which page? The one the poet originally wrote, whether by hand or type; or the one that was first published; or the one that was last published?

“If all of those arrangements of words are identical, one may duck the question, but they rarely are. Typesetters and proofreaders make mistakes, and they also make corrections which poets find agreeable. Poets change their minds. Conventions of spelling and punctuation vary from house to house, and change over time. There are competing theories about how to handle such issues, and consensus views to guide practitioners, but the questions must always be confronted.

“At the risk of seeming to brag, I will claim that confronting these questions in Moore’s work is unusually torturous. Someone had to, though, because the final record Moore left of her own work — and the standard Moore edition for several decades — has been her mendaciously titled Complete Poems (1967). …

“Creating one, however, is tricky. Her lifelong practices of revising, reordering, and redacting her poems make a special kind of hash out of any attempt to be definitive. Certainly her revisions are the most spectacular problem. Moore didn’t just write poems, she rewrote them, often completely, often more than once. …

“Moore deserves careful editorial attention because she is, by any measure, a major poet. She was and is revered by her poet peers for her inventiveness, her fierce intelligence, her wit, and her moral vision. Her work is original, with an original’s perennial newness. In editing the New Complete Poems, I have done what editors do: devised a working set of procedures to present the poet I know and value. I have not, because I cannot, settled any questions about what her poetry is or may become. Original things always exceed definitive presentation and containment. Long may her poems confound us.” More here.

In one of the ESL classes where I volunteer, we have been reading Emily Dickinson. Time to suggest Moore to the teacher, I think. Women poets don’t get nearly the respect they deserve: it pains me to recall that as much as my father wanted me to know the work of these women, he told me there were no great female poets.

Update 8/5/17: Moore editor Heather Cass White made an appearance at the Island Bound Bookstore tonight. Her talk was super. The book sounded very accessible as well as more authoritative than previous editions. Reader, I bought it.

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Every once in a while I feel the need to go back to this poem. This is how it ends:

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski (Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)
Published in the New Yorker, September 24, 2011

In 2011, Newsweek had an interesting piece on the author’s perspective.

“A week after the collapse of the Twin Towers,” wrote Matthew Kaminski, “The New Yorker ran Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’ on the final page of its special 9/11 issue. Written a year and a half before the attacks, the poem nevertheless quickly became the most memorable verse statement on the tragedy, and arguably the best-known poem of the last 10 years. …

“Now 66, Zagajewski is the leading poet of the Polish generation that followed Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska. Milosz called his cohorts ‘the poets of ruin,’ forced to grapple with Poland’s bloody 20th century. Zagajewski fits this description as well. He was an infant when his family was loaded onto cattle cars and deported from their home in Lwów [Lviv], to be relocated by Stalin to the Soviet Union. …

“Polish poets have long thought of themselves as national bards, called to engage with the harsh world around them. ‘Polish poetry is one of the marvels of 20th-century literature,’ wrote former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic. …

“In Zagajewski’s poetry, cruelty mingles with humor, optimism, and a keen appreciation of nature. ‘Well, why not,’ he says. ‘You write a poem. You are alive. You don’t want to be a humorless person. I think that when you write poems you aspire to something whole that’s bigger than simply lament. In poetry I think you try to reconstruct what’s humanity. Humanity is always a mix of crying and laughing.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Wikimedia
Astronomical twilight as seen from a plane window.

dusk-a330

 

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